Autumn draws us into the darkness, both without and within. The signs are everywhere now. The light retreats and the life-giving forces – warmth, long days of sunshine, and nature’s bounty – fade away. Our ancestors needed good harvests and the wisdom to store food in order to survive these seasonal realities. We of the supermarket and the transportation age seem immune from seasonal fluctuations of the food supply. But we still harbor ancient and archetypal fears of the dark, and the harshness of winter. Autumn is a season of magical beauty, but it is also a time when we are reminded of our utter dependence upon the light, which is all but conquered at this time of the year. We are part of that natural cycle. We are subject to the same laws that drive the seasons. And thus, autumn is a time when we must face the darkness within ourselves.
There is a certain amount of sadness in seeing the days get shorter, the flowers and leaves die, and the sun grow watery and weak. The Chinese sages said that this was the time of the year when the lungs were most challenged. And the lungs, they said, are the reservoirs of our sadness and grief. Thus, autumn stimulates old memories of loss – loss of the light in many different forms, both planetary and personal.
Last year at this time, my mother was suffering from advanced lung cancer, and in mid-October she passed into the next world, mercifully, after suffering terribly for a couple of months. The relationship was always difficult, with few overt expressions of love from her side. Long ago, I made peace with the realities of our relationship. But many feelings still linger and are held in the tissues of my heart and lungs.
Even before she died, the autumn always reminded me of the lack of mothering that I had experienced in this life. Is there a secret need for parenting in the fall? This year, the message is a little more acute: the only earthly mother I had is now gone.
But even when a particular relationship is put to rest, there is also the need to accept the limitations of life. Much within us that needed love didn’t receive it. And many struggles remain. These truths, and the old wounds that lie within them, deserve to be respected and grieved, as well.
Confronting Death In The Season
In traditional times, people recognize autumn as the season of death. They perceived, as well, that the veil between this world and the next was thinner in Autumn. The sages of the Catholic calendar placed All Souls Day on November 2nd. In Spain, they refer to the day as the Day of the Dead, and in the Middle East – Lebanon and Syria – the day is called Thursday of the Dead.
The cycle of death and rebirth is found in virtually every spiritual tradition. The celebrations of spring have long been seen as life’s victory over death. Throughout Europe and parts of North and South America, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, was marked by celebrations in which an effigy of death was dragged into the streets and beaten with sticks or then burned. Having survived the darkness of autumn and the deprivations of winter, people celebrated life and symbolically killed death. This was followed by a great celebration of feasting and debauchery – a celebration of life and the senses.
Autumn is the calendar’s shadow. And with it comes the demand that we purge our lungs and our grief. Why has this become so difficult for us in modern times?
The Healing Power Of Sadness
One of the primary reasons is that people are afraid of their sadness today, in part because so many of us confuse sadness with depression. All too often, people think sadness and depression are one and the same. They are not. On the contrary, depression is actually a form of powerless anger, covered over by a belief in our own defeat. Depression occurs when we confront a problem, or set of beliefs, for which we can find no answer. Our life force has been blunted, stifled, and blocked by the crisis. At first, we become angry. But rather than use that anger as a form of power against the obstacle, and against the false belief in our weakness, we turn the anger inward, on ourselves. This causes an injury to the heart and to our courage and power. Blocked by our belief in our own powerlessness, we sink into a form of powerless anger that is self-destructive and self-defeating. We don’t express the anger, nor do we process our belief that we are powerless to overcome our problem. Instead, we become confused and defeated. We are unable to go forward. And joy is drained from our lives. Thus, we become depressed.
Others deny their sadness because they fear that they will be engulfed by sadness if they allow themselves to become aware of it. I have found just the opposite, both in my own life, and in the lives of the thousands of people I have worked with in my consultations and healing programs. I have found that when people confront and process their sadness – even in a single sitting – they experience great relief and an elevation of their spirits. They are ennobled by speaking their sadness, and sharing their grief with someone they love.
True sadness is one of the purest and most healing of all emotions. In sadness, there is grieving, accepting of what is, and letting go of pain. Sadness, deeply felt, leads inevitably to compassion – first for yourself and all that you have been through, and then for others who have suffered, as well. You can hardly experience authentic sadness without also experiencing compassion for yourself, and for others you care about.
Sadness usually results in tears. Crying is an energetic release of pain. It reconfigures your energetic body and condition. Once the crying has passed, you feel relieved of that pain. But more important, your heart opens and you welcome the love that others have for you.
Do not confuse compassion with self-pity. In self-pity, there is the experience of powerlessness, anger, and self-loathing. Compassion is a form of love, both for yourself and others. There is empathy in compassion, but more important, there is courage and the willingness to be of service in the fight to improve your own life, as well as the lives of others. The compassionate heart is a warrior’s heart.
No one gets to compassion without dealing, to some degree, with true and authentic sadness. And no one truly heals his or her heart without confronting his or her sadness, and experiencing the healing balm of compassion and self-love that follow that sadness.
The Layered Nature Of Consciousness
Consciousness, or that which we are aware of, exists in layers within the overall and limitless expanse of the human psyche. The uppermost layer of consciousness is our persona, or personality, which is the complex array of beliefs and behaviors that we present to the world in order to attract love and positive experiences. We use our persona to make our way through social life, as well as attract friends, lovers, and career opportunities.
Below the layer of the persona lie the two emotions that we feel most acutely and that bully their way into our lives on a fairly constant basis. Those two, of course, are fear and anger.
As emotions, or energetic states, fear and anger can be understood as big waves of energy. When experienced, we tremble with fear and its little cousin, anxiety. When we are in its grip, we also tremble with anger. Both are big energies that can consume our awareness entirely and make us believe that there’s nothing else within us, except fear or anger or both.
However, if you bring your attention to either the fear or the anger, and allow yourself to fully experience one or the other you will soon find that these two energies begin to calm down and eventually they lose their hold on you. In fact, what happens most often is that if you allow your fear to emerge, and to gently bring it into consciousness, it will sooner or later morph into anger. The fear you started out feeling will soon turn into justified anger, or the feeling that no one – and nothing — has the right to threaten you, or to threaten those you love.
Fear and anger are turning into each other all the time. This is the reason why so much violence occurs in the world today. Fear and anger dominate the social discourse, and thus breed violence in all its many forms – physical, verbal, and as imagery of pain.
The problem is that we do not examine this phenomenon closely enough. And we don’t go deeper, below the cycle of fear and anger. Instead, we stay trapped in it. But if we were to allow the fear and anger to dissipate, we would find that a new emotion actually replaces these two. Lying below the persona, and the layers of fear and anger, is the first healing emotion, which is sadness.
Sadness arises when we realize that fear and anger have separated us from the experience of love – the love of our family and friends, the love of the Great Spirit. Sadness arises when we realize how isolated and alone we are, even from God. In this moment of existential isolation, a strange transformation takes place. As we bring our awareness to our aloneness, and our loneliness, sadness transforms us. It opens our hearts. We suddenly feel compassion and love for ourselves flow within us. Something else is present, something bigger than self-love. That something is the presence of a love that is greater than your love, and bigger than your awareness. In the midst of the compassion you feel, you become aware of Spirit, which rushes to your aid. Your heart opens and you find yourself giving thanks to the Divine for the comfort and love with which Spirit embraces you. You matter. You have faced enormous challenges in your life, and you’ve done the best you could at every turn. And you have done well.
That is the voice that comes to us in these moments. There is no condemnation, no judgment, no criticism – only the awareness that you have struggled against all odds, and done the best you could, and in the course of things have suffered enormous, and yet still succeeded in so many ways. Indeed, you have succeeded in ways that you can never know, nor are you supposed to know.
Below sadness lies the gentle wave of compassion, and below compassion lies the all-powerful wave of love. And below love lies the great gift of joy. And below joy lies the immense and overwhelming experience of gratitude – gratitude for the gifts of love and comfort that Spirit has given you; gratitude for the gift of being so important that Spirit would come to you in your hour of need; gratitude for the gift of being you.
The Gifts Of Autumn
We often turn away from this process by consuming too much sugar or alcohol, or eating dairy products, or smoking cigarettes. Yes, the food and drink can dull the body and spirit, and make us forget that we are called to look within at this time of the year, and to experience some of the wonders of our spiritual life.
But even in autumn we are meant to play. Among the beauties of the season is the gentle pull of romance that charges the air. Intimacy is a gift of the season – intimacy with self, with others, with a special other, and with the Source of it All.
There are many practical ways to bring about such intimacy. Stay close to your heart and all your feelings by writing regularly in a journal. Enter those feelings as deeply as you can in your writing. Bring awareness to all that is within you and watch yourself enter more gentle, healing energies, as you tumble from turbulent emotions to gentler ones, eventually falling into a heart opening compassion and love.
Take walks in nature. The ocean is especially powerful at this time of the year. The beaches are mostly clear of tourists. You can walk alone on the beach, or with someone you care about. If you cannot get to the ocean, walk in a forest, by a river, or a lake. Let the colors of the leaves, or the barrenness of the limbs, stir your inner world. Share whatever feelings emerge with those you care about. Enter a healing journey by seeing healers and/or a therapist regularly throughout the autumn and winter. You will emerge in spring a new and more integrated human being, one who is more at home in your skin, and more confident in the world.
Meantime, take good care of your lungs and large intestine. These are organs that are most challenged in autumn, and most acutely in need of healing now. Your lungs are reservoirs of emotion, especially sadness and grief. (The following article can show you how to do just that.)
The season slows down, as we should. Autumn is the time to get reacquainted with your inner life, and the beauty that lives inside of you.